Although Paul Laurence Dunbar was only 33 years old when he died of tuberculosis on February 9, 1906, he left behind a lasting legacy of poems, short stories, and novels. The eldest son of former Kentucky slaves, Dunbar published his first poems in his hometown newspaper at the age of sixteen. His first collection of poetry, Oak and Ivy, was published in 1893. While much of his poetry was written in traditional English verse, Dunbar achieved widespread popularity for writing in African American vernacular dialect. Several volumes of Dunbar’s poetry like Poems of Cabin and Field(1899), Candle-Lightin’ Time(1901), When Malindy Sings(1903), and Li’l’ Gal(1904), shown here, featured full-page, black-and-white photographs taken by the Hampton Institute Camera Club, with whom Dunbar frequently collaborated to illustrate his verse. The hundreds of photographs in these books have significant cultural value as representations of rural African American life at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Several volumes of Dunbar’s poetry are included in the John MacKay Shaw Collection of Childhood in Poetry. In his short life, Dunbar spoke with passion, humor, and elegance of the human experience, inspiring later writers such as Maya Angelou, who titled her autobiography after lines from Dunbar’s poem Sympathy:
I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, Charles Dicken’s first novel, was published in installments by Chapman and Hall from March 1836 to November 1837. There were 20 parts issued in 19 volumes for a shilling each with 43 engraved plates. The first two parts were illustrated by Robert Seymour, who originally pitched the project to Chapman and Hall as a series of sporting sketches with accompanying commentary. But once Dickens – then known by his pen-nickname “Boz” – came on board the project, Seymour’s role was diminished. Dickens was notoriously hard on his illustrators. On April 20, 1836, Seymour committed suicide. R. W. Buss was brought on board to provide illustrations for the third part, but he was quickly replaced by H. K. “Phiz” Browne, who illustrated the remaining parts and went on to work with Dickens for many more years.
While certainly not the first novel to be published in serialized parts, the Pickwick Club was the first to “go viral,” especially after the introduction of the beloved character Sam Weller. The final double installment of parts 19 and 20 was printed in a run of 40,000, an incredible increase from the 1,000 copies printed for the first part. FSU Special Collections & Archives has recently acquired a complete set of parts of the Pickwick Club in their original wrappers. Parts 9-10 and 12-20 include The Pickwick Advertiser, which are a treasure trove of Victorian era advertisements for everything from toothache remedies to easy chairs. Parts 14 and 19-20 include an additional tipped in catalog for Mech’s cutlery.
These serialized parts nicely complement FSU Special Collections’ copy of the first single-volume edition of the Pickwick Club, printed from stereotypes of the original parts in 1837. FSU’s copy includes a binder’s ticket from “Alexander Miller, Bookseller, Port Street, Stirling” on the lower left-hand corner of the back pastedown. There is evidence of a bookseller named Alexander Miller active in Stirling, Scotland in 1852 and 1865-6. Indeed, ready-bound versions of popular works like the Pickwick Club would have been commonly available for purchase in bookshops like Miller’s in the middle of the nineteenth century. Stop by the Special Collections Research Center soon to look at these and other editions of Dickens’ works!
When it comes to studying the history of the book, the study of bookbinding presents a unique set of challenges to scholars. While today we might be tempted think of a book as an all-in-one package, whether we buy it in a bookstore or download it to an e-reader, historically the process of creating a book from conception, to publishing, to binding has been anything but neat and tidy. Prior to the mechanization of printing in the early nineteenth century, books were often bound years, even decades, after publication. Some books were bound by binders associated with publishing companies, some were “bespoke” by wealthy patrons according to their personal specifications, and others were shipped as unfolded, uncut sheets to be bound in distant countries. Since a book can be bound and rebound any number of times in its life, associating a bookbinding with a particular place, time, and bindery is at best a game of educated guesswork. Even so, bindings have a lot to tell us about the history of the book, and the FSU Special Collections & Archives rare books collections contain many notable examples of bookbinding materials and techniques.
The most common coverings for books through the nineteenth century were those made out of animal skins, either leather or vellum.¹ One of the oldest leather bindings in our collection is on a fifteenth century Italian manuscript (fig. 1), believed to be in its original binding. Although much of the leather has worn with time, a pattern of knot-work stamps worked in blind around a filleted central panel is still visible. A manuscript like this would have taken considerable time and labor to produce, and its binding reflects its preciousness.
Leather was the material of choice for monastic and university libraries, but books owned by private (i.e. wealthy) collectors were often covered in embroidered fabrics or velvet. It is difficult to determine just how widespread the use of fabric bindings was because so many of them were not made to withstand the test of the time as well as their leather counterparts.² The embroidered binding in fig. 2 is believed to date from the eighteenth century, and it covers a 1547 Italian printed book on the lives of the Saints (Vite de Santi Padri). It is precisely these types of devotional works that were often given special coverings by their owners.
On the other end of the spectrum, increased book production after the Renaissance led to a shortage of binding materials, and cheaper methods of binding came into use to meet growing demands. By the eighteenth century, simple paper wrappings had become a common cover for inexpensive pamphlets and small-format books, such as the almanac in fig. 3.³ This copy of the 1767 Almanach des Muses, a serial of French poetry published annually from the mid-eighteenth to the early nineteenth century, is comprised of seven quires with untrimmed edges sewn together and wrapped in decorated paper, which is glued to the first and last pages of the volume. The use of blue paper was often characteristic of French paper bindings.³ Unlike modern day book jackets, these paper coverings bear no relation to the text within. Since these bindings were not designed for longevity, they often do not survive intact or are removed when the books are rebound and the pages are trimmed.
The FSU Special Collections & Archives rare book collections run the gamut from medieval manuscripts bound in tooled leather with gilt edges to untrimmed almanacs wrapped in publishers’ scraps. Their value, form, and function may vary, but they all contribute to the same history. Prior to the mechanization of book production in the early 1800s, each book was constructed by hand, and, as such, each can be thought of as a miniature work of art, just waiting to be discovered.
Katherine Hoarn is a graduate assistant in Special Collections & Archives. She is working on her Master of Library and Information Science degree at Florida State University.
1. D. Pearson, English bookbinding styles 1450-1800, London, 2005, p. 20-21
2. P. Needham, Twelve centuries of bookbindings 400-1600, New York, 1979, p. 107.
3. M. Lock, Bookbinding materials and techniques 1700-1920, Toronto, 2003, p. 48.